Windsurf racing has been in the Olympics every quadrennial since 1984. As the sport has evolved, however, the Olympic boards and sails have periodically changed, always amid controversy and debate. The general trend has been a move from boards optimized for sub-planing performance to boards designed for faster planing performance. The trend has stopped short of planing-only boards, however, because the Olympic sailing committee has wanted gear that can be used in ANY wind, and the best planing-only boards still require a steady 8 knots or so for good racing. Planing-only windsurfing also tends to require multiple set of sails and fins for different wind strengths, which is incompatible with Olympic sailing's "one-design" philosophy, i.e., all competitors have to use the exact same gear all the time.
The current Olympic one-design gear is the Neil Pryde RS:X. It was used in China in 2008 and it will be used again in England in 2012. Nobody really LOVES the RS:X, which is a lot bigger and clumsier than what most windsurfers ride for fun, but it fulfills its mission of being able to navigate the race course both in planing mode and in light wind "displacement" mode. As with previous Olympic windsurfing classes, RS:X competition in light to moderate winds is characterized by the competitors constantly rowing the air with their sails; "pumping" to go faster. That means Olympic class windsurfers have to be ultra athletic, but it kind of misses the point of sailing, which is moving with wind power as opposed to muscle power. It also looks really un-fun compared to other forms of windsurf racing like slalom and formula where the nature of the gear limits the need to pump, or the Kona one-design class where a rule prohibits pumping. Therefore only a small minority of windsurfers (the most competitively-driven and masochistic) aspire to compete in the RS:X class. Nevertheless, it's a source of pride for windsurfers to have their sport represented in the Olympics, and to marvel at the levels of athleticism and sailing skill reached at such an ultimate tier of competition. I for one am super proud of America's Farrah Hall and Bob Willis, who busted their asses to reach the top ranks in the US and to qualify our country to compete in England this summer.
This video shows an RS:X race in light to moderate wind, where there is a mix of pumping and planing performance.
As for kiteboarding, there have been people lobbying for several years to make it an Olympic sailing class. But most windsurfers assumed that the same factors preventing planing-only windsurfing gear from getting into the Olympics (the one-design constraint and the need to be raceable in any wind condition) would be insurmountable obstacles for kiteboarding. After all, kiteboarding has no existing one-design classes and it is a planing-only sport that requires steady wind to keep kites aloft. So the windsurfing world was shocked when it was recently announced that the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would add kiteboarding and eliminate windsurfing! How did this happen?
Well, kiteboard racing has undergone an impressive evolution in gear performance and organizational professionalism since its haphazard beginnings. Refined, windsurf-like kite-race boards are now among the fastest and earliest-planing wind-powered watercraft of any kind, and there are big, competitive fleets in the International Kiteboarding Association's world championship tour.
This is an interview with the current kiteboard racing world champion, Johnny Heineken, and it shows some footage of kite course racing.
With large kites on long lines that can loop and "sine" through the air to generate power, kite-race boards can get going in surprisingly light winds. Just how low the wind requirement is tends to be exaggerated, and the problems of what happens if there is a lull that allows the kite to drop in the water are overlooked. Nevertheless the wind threshold for practical kite racing seems to be at least on par with that of formula windsurfing. Of course, kites can't compete in ALL conditions, as evidenced by their skunking at a 2011 Miami Olympic sailing classes event last year where RS:X windsurfers raced successfully.
Anyway, what seems to have happened is that lobbyists for Olympic kiteboarding miraculously convinced sailing's governing bodies to overlook their usual one-design constraints and wind minimums to consider the current form of kiteboard racing for an Olympic slot. Then, when compared against the RS:X windsurfing class, which is still crippled by the one-design rules and the air-rowing dynamic in light winds, kiteboarding looked a lot more spectacular and had the leg up for Olympic selection. Of course, some questions remain-
1. Why couldn't they bump one of the other sailing classes to have windsurfing AND kiteboarding? After all, windsurfing and kiteboarding are very different from each other, as I discussed in a previous blog post, but they are each among the most popular and accessible forms of sailing. Actually, the Olympic committee DID bump two big-boat classes out of the Olympics, but they kept four types of monohull dinghy: laser, finn, 470, and 49'er, which I think is about twice as many dinghy types as needed. (On a positive note the committee added catamarans back in, which I think is good since cats are fast and popular among recreational sailors.)
2. Why couldn't they give windsurfing a chance to compete as a production board class (e.g., formula or slalom) like they did for kiteboarding? It seems like the selection committee has been considering "boards" as something distinct from the other sailing classes, based on their forcing a choice of kite- OR sailboards. So if they're willing to suspend the one-design constraint and raise the wind minimums for kiteboards they should be willing to give the same special treatment to sailboards.
This post is getting long, so let me try to wrap it up with a summary of my thoughts. I actually don't think this decision is the end of the world for windsurfing. In fact it may not even be the final decision- there's a petition gaining a lot of momentum now to keep windsurfing and have both sports in the games.
If the petition works, great. If it doesn't work, I think our next move should be to lobby for production class windsurfing (slalom and / or formula) to be in the Olympics. This could be our chance to finally get away from the whole air-rowing one-design thing and show our sport for what it really is to most people- a fast, free, thrill ride across the water.